Menu Close

Overview of the UC & CSU Systems

Administration building at Chico State. Image by MARELBU at Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0.

The University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems are two of the three prongs of the California Master Plan for Higher Education. The California Community College system is the third. The Master Plan was enacted in 1960 to ensure that California residents have access to high-quality public options for higher education and that California produces a workforce prepared for a changing economy.

In this article, we broadly describe the campus environments, academic focus, and admissions for these two systems and highlight some of the special features that make Californians so fortunate to live in a state with two outstanding four-year public university systems.


UC Application: November 30
CSU Application: December 4

CSU + UC @600w

Campus environments

Campuses of the UC and CSU systems are sprinkled throughout the state in dense urban, sprawling suburban, oceanside, agricultural and rural settings.

The UC system comprises nine undergraduate campuses, one graduate campus (UC San Francisco; medical, health sciences) and one independent law college (UC Hastings). Eight of the nine primary campuses are large, ranging in size from about 17,500 to 31,500 undergraduates, while the newest campus, UC Merced, has just over 8,000 undergraduates. UC campuses tend to be residential, meaning that most first-year freshmen and transfer students live on campus, although students have the option to commute from home. Students in their second and later years typically live off-campus with other students in apartments and houses, but some campuses guarantee housing for second- or later-year students.

The CSU system comprises twenty-three campuses that vary widely in size, focus, student body, and atmosphere. The CSU campuses range from fewer than 7,000 undergraduates at Channel Islands and Monterey Bay, the two newest campuses, to more than 35,000 at older, established campuses in areas of high population density, such as Fullerton and Northridge. Many campuses, such as Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (SLO) and San Diego State, provide vibrant residential experiences with many students living in the dorms. Other campuses cater more to local students who commute from home, such as Stanislaus State—but some of these are increasing dorm space to accommodate more residential students, such as Cal State East Bay.

Walter Pyramid, an athletic facility at CSU Long Beach. Image by Summum at Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 2.5 Generic.

Cost of attendance

Both the UC and CSU systems are wonderful, lower-cost options for California students. The average cost of attendance for UC campuses is about $36,000 for students living on campus. The average cost of attendance for CSU campuses is approximately $5,000 to $10,000 lower, depending on the campus. The tremendous value that both systems provide is likely why they continually see growth in enrollment and an increase in the competitiveness of admissions.

Academic focus

The UC and CSU systems were created to serve different purposes. Both educate undergraduates across a broad range of majors, but they differ in the area of graduate education. UC campuses offer master’s and doctoral degrees in nearly all fields, while CSU campuses offer master’s degrees and a small number of doctoral degrees, mainly in the field of education.

The UC system is considered one of the finest research university systems in the world. System-wide, the university has produced more than 200 Nobel Laureates, either as alumni, faculty or staff. Because of this heavy research focus, undergraduates can gain research experience in labs on campus. They will work side-by-side with every level of student, including undergraduates and graduates, as well as post-doctoral fellows, professors, and the professional staff of the many affiliated centers and institutes.

Most campuses also offer from dozens to more than 100 majors and minors, in addition to interdisciplinary degree programs. They provide education in the liberal arts, applied sciences and pre-professional programs, though specific majors and programs vary by campus.

The CSU system is the largest university system in the country, and the campuses vary widely in academic focus. The two polytechnic campuses, Cal Poly SLO and Cal Poly Pomona, are STEM-focused. They provide a hands-on approach to learning, especially in applied science programs such as engineering, but students can also take classes in the liberal arts and sciences.

Other CSU campuses, like Chico State, have a more traditional liberal arts and sciences focus, but many also offer excellent engineering and pre-professional programs that prepare students for careers immediately upon graduation. Many CSU professors conduct research, providing students with the opportunity to gain research experience on their home campus.

The Channel Islands and Monterey campuses, located directly on the coast, provide focused education in marine biology and ecological conservation. CSU Maritime Academy uniquely offers just eight undergraduate degrees, and is the only US maritime academy on the west coast; its student cadets train in skills and certifications to serve in the merchant navy and land-based support roles.

TS Golden Bear docked at the CSU Maritime Academy campus in Vallejo, California.
TS Golden Bear docked at the CSU Maritime Academy campus in Vallejo, California.


The UC and CSU systems each receive nearly 200,000 applications for undergraduate admission each year. This year, neither system will use test scores as part of the evaluation process, a change that will impact admissions differently for UC and CSU campuses.

All UC campuses provide some type of “holistic” evaluation, meaning that all aspects of the application are considered. UC admissions evaluations have traditionally placed the greatest weight on GPA and rigor of coursework, while also considering test scores. However, they also consider personal qualities, motivations, and accomplishments, which they evaluate in the many writing sections on the UC application. Without the use of test scores this year, the writing sections will take on even greater importance. UC campuses require a minimum GPA of 3.0, but the academic qualifications of students admitted to UC campuses are typically much higher.

The admissions evaluation process at CSU campuses has traditionally relied almost entirely on GPA and test scores, with some consideration for course rigor and personal characteristics. This year, without test scores, the CSU is placing greater emphasis on academic rigor, such as the number of advanced courses taken, number of college prep courses taken, and the highest level of math completed.

Some campuses also consider leadership and involvement in extracurricular activities. There are no writing sections. CSU campuses generally require 3.0 GPA, but some campuses accommodate students with 2.5 GPA or higher. The academic qualifications need for CSU admission vary from campus to campus depending on whether the campus or specific majors are impacted and the level of impact. (Impacted campuses and majors are those that receive more applications than they have space to accommodate.)

It is important to note that, unlike UC campuses, the CSU campuses have geographically defined local admission areas. High school seniors may apply to any CSU campus in the state, but applicants within a campus’s local admission area are given preference over out-of-area applicants for impacted campuses.

Both the UC and CSU application deadlines are right around the corner, so we recommend that you carefully consider these outstanding options when finalizing your college application list. Be sure to contact us if you have any last-minute questions!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.